By Jessie Burchette
Two Rowan County commissioners shot back this week at economic development officials who complained the disclosure of confidential negotiations could endanger a wind-tunnel project worth at least $60 million.
“Stop whimpering about the wind tunnel,” Commissioner Jim Sides said at the outset of the board’s Monday evening meeting.
Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission officials, Rowan Chamber of Commerce members and others have lashed out at commissioners since the May publication of a story in the Post about a possible wind tunnel to be built adjacent to the planned Toyota Racing Development facility off Peach Orchard Road.
The unnamed company considering the site is apparently seeking six years of property tax rebates for the project, one more year than the county’s economic development incentive policy allows.
Supporters of the Economic Development Commission chastised Rowan County commissioners for having loose lips, which they said hurt efforts to recruit business.
“It’s a disgrace there’s my whimper,” said Dyke Messinger, president of Power Curbers. He said commissioners have no right to break the confidence pledged by the Economic Development Commission to site consultants.
“I was shocked when I read it in the paper,” he said.
Messinger said the Rowan Jobs Initiative is succeeding in getting its “Available for Work” message to site-selection consultants. He said visits to the Economic Development Commission Web site increased by 90 percent in 2006 and 40 percent this year.
During a public hearing on the proposed 2007-2008 county budget,several speakers stressed the importance of the incentive program and business recruitment. But if the leaks continue, Messinger said, there is no need to continue the efforts of the commission and the Rowan Jobs Initiative.
“Can we be trusted?” asked Pete Teague, chairman of the Chamber’s Progress Task Force.
Teague also called the idea of linking incentives to numbers of jobs created instead of tax base “small thinking.”
And Randy Welch, a member of the Chamber board of directors, said, “Leaders must be seen as business friendly.”
But Sides and Commissioner Tina Hall said that as long as the Economic Development Commission is a public agency and tax dollars are involved, the public has a right to know.
Sides signed up for public comment and made clear his position, saying the Economic Development Commission is a publicly funded agency and what goes on is public.
“I was not the one that let the cat out of the bag,” Sides said. He added that he was the last commissioner told about the project.
Hall, who has been targeted by Economic Development Commission supporters as the possible source of the Post story, said her campaign was about openness in government and citizens need to know what is going on. She criticized “secret meetings,” where economic development officials brief commissioners one at a time to avoid public disclosure.
Hall said those meetings are, in effect, “telling Rowan County citizens it’s none of their business. And if a public official really believes that, they have no business holding public office.”
Chairman Arnold Chamberlain, who discussed the wind tunnel project in the Post story, appeared to take offense at Hall’s comment, saying he hoped that she had misspoken.
Chamberlain offered an apology of sorts for his curt treatment of Hall at an earlier budget session. “I should not have done that. I’m sorry.”
Chamberlain then mused about the workings of the board.
Without naming Sides and Hall, Chamberlain said he had talked privately with many people about the budget but had heard nothing about that from two commissioners.
He went on to talk about his relationship with Sides.
“As time goes by, Jim and I get farther apart,” Chamberlain said. He added that he believes what Sides says, but that Sides doesn’t believe him.
Sides smiled and said nothing.
Citing a desire to clear the air, Chamberlain said he’s available and willing to talk and added, “Don’t talk about me.”
Chamberlain, Vice Chairman Chad Mitchell and Commissioner Jon Barber made no direct response to the Economic Development Commission demand for confidentiality.
All three pledged to support full funding for the commission and the Rowan Jobs Initiative for the coming year.
During board appointments, Hall, Sides and Mitchell combined to appoint Dr. Jimmy Jenkins, president of Livingstone College, to the Economic Development Commission Board of Directors.
“Wow,” Chamberlain said, when Hall nominated Jenkins. Chamberlain and Barber voted against his appointment.
Commissioners unanimously appointed James L. Taylor Jr., vice president of Carolina Farm Credit, to the board of directors. The board opted not to reappoint Eric Slipp of National Starch.
By Jessie Burchette